Spiritual Formation

To Grow Your Soul

I am a gardening wannabe.

It’s the artistic part that appeals to me. Loading my Home Depot cart with pretty plants. Then arranging them around the garden, according to size and color and shape and texture and blooming time.

However—and quite unfortunately—the science side of gardening eludes me. Oh, sure, I can place the plants based on shade or sun. I can sprinkle a bit of fertilizer here and there. And usually I remember to water. But beyond that—when you start talking about soil, nutrients, bugs, rot, and disease—I’m in over my head.

When Peter and I bought This Old McHenry House, the small back yard was covered in a variety of overgrown shrubs. No grass. Just bushes, rocks, a crumbling brick patio, two dilapidated fountains, a cock-eyed birdhouse, and a pathway running through the foliage, from house to garage.

It looked like a scraggly and neglected mess when we arrived in March. But come spring, I was pleasantly surprised when most of the bushes erupted with flowers and leaves. A jungle of loveliness. And that first summer, I dedicated myself to the task of taming it. Sculpting it into our own suburban oasis. I pruned and weeded. Moved some plants and added others. Filled the old fountains with flowers. And at the end of every long day of gardening, I collapsed in an Adirondack chair with a glass of lemonade and admired my work.

The following spring I was eager to take things to the next level. By then I had researched how to lay a brick patio, and I planned to transform the awkward space between the house and the neighbor’s fence from a mud pit into an additional outdoor living area. I had also investigated native Illinois flowers, various mulch options, and how to hang a hammock.

My enthusiasm waned ever-so-slightly, however, when I surveyed the scene in early May. While most of my perennials had survived the long winter, several of them had not. So before I could press ahead with my elaborate scheme, I had to deal with the casualties. I moved around the garden with shovel and lawn bag in tow, digging up the dead.

Until I came across one particular Potentilla.

At first glance she looked brown and brittle, so I poked in the shovel and began to pry her out. But when I looked more closely, when I parted her prickly branches to grab ahold and pull up her roots, I saw just a little bit of life. Just a few delicate green leaves pushing up through the dirt at her base.

Peter found me, sitting in the mud, a bit teary actually, pushing her back into the ground. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Look,” I said. “This poor shrub reminds me of me.”

See, that spring gardening was more than a home improvement project. More than a hobby for me. It was a distraction. Even a salve. I was smack in the middle of a six-year proverbial “dark night of the soul.” I was brown and brittle. And gardening was going to help get me through.

In my next several blog entries, I will detail that journey. The descent into the valley. The rocky terrain, the long tunnels, the glimpses of light, and the eventual slow climb out the other side.

But here, in this essay, what I want to do is give you a map.

I knew less about Spiritual Growth than I did about gardening when I signed up for the Principles of Discipleship class during my fourth semester of seminary in 1994. As a part of the course, I waded through James W. Fowler’s thick treatise on the subject, Stages of Faith. Fowler based his work on Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development. And he was one of the first to describe Faith Development in similar terms—specifically a six-Stage process that all people move through in sequence—though the object of their faith and the speed of their journey may widely differ.

Fowler begins by defining faith in broad terms—as “a state of being ultimately concerned.” According to Fowler, then, we all have faith. In something. We are all ultimately concerned “with how to put our lives together and with what will make life worth living. Moreover, we look for something to
love that loves us, something to value that gives us value, something to honor and respect that has the power to sustain our being.”

In later chapters, then, Fowler describes his six Stages in great depth with piles of research to back them up. Here, I’ll try to give you a sort of simple summary.

Stage Number One typically describes children from age two to seven. Fowler writes that young children approach Faith primarily with their imagination. They are powerfully and permanently influenced by the stories and actions and emotions of the adults in their lives. And they express their own “Faith” largely by imitation. They don’t yet understand God, and they may imagine him to be all sorts of fantastic things. But they pray the way their parents tell them to pray. And they recite the Bible verses their parents teach them to recite. This is an important foundation for the Stages yet to come.

When children reach school age and their thinking becomes more concrete, they are ready to enter Stage Number Two. They begin to construct a more coherent and literal narrative for their Faith. Story remains central, but they now work hard to sort out the real from the make-believe. Stage Two children are literal. They are greatly concerned with right and wrong. And they expect God and life to be good and fair.

In adolescence, most children move into Stage Number Three. Here, a child’s world expands well beyond the family, and Faith should ideally provide an anchor and a basis for identity. But this is an insecure and conformist Stage. Children are so concerned with the expectations and judgments of others that they often follow the loudest voice. And unfortunately, when Faith is not a primary influence, these voices can become so loud and so powerful that they impair judgment and jeopardize future growth.

To push beyond Fowler’s Stage Number Three, an individual must reflect critically on his beliefs. Often this transition to Stage Number Four is precipitated by a major life change or a crisis of some kind. The source of authority shifts from the external to the internal—from others to self. And the individual begins to take seriously the responsibility for his own Faith. Ideally, this should happen in young adulthood. But Fowler’s research revealed that some adults don’t move into Stage Four until mid-life. And many other adults never, ever do.

Stage Number Five happens when adults—usually in mid-life—move from the self-confidence of Stage Four to a place where they can appreciate the presence of ambiguity and the power of paradox. By this time, they are well-acquainted with pain, and they are ready to “reclaim and rework” their understanding of the past. They draw close to what is different, embrace the tension, and think outside of the box.

Finally, Fowler describes an exceedingly rare Stage Number Six. Mother Theresa, for example. The person who has reached Stage Six has abandoned the need for self-preservation. She has a transcendent passion to transform the world—not into her own image, but into the image of the Divine. According to Fowler, these people “have a special grace that makes them seem more lucid, more simple, and yet somehow more fully human than the rest of us.”

When I was studying Fowler in 1994, I was entering his Stage Number Four. Graduating from college and moving on my own to Illinois had been a major life change. This new independence and my seminary studies were causing me to evaluate my background and my beliefs. But I wanted to do this thoughtfully. To really become an adult. To truly grow.

So I devised a Spiritual Growth plan of my own.

Step Number One: Deconstruct my old beliefs, keeping only the non-negotiable ones.

Step Number Two: Research—both my old beliefs as well as the alternatives.

Step Number Three: Build back a stronger structure on a more sure foundation.

So I got to work. Step One was fairly easy. Demolition usually is. But I got stuck in Step Two. I spent several long Saturdays in the seminary library, tucked in a quiet corner, pouring over theology books that I could hardly understand, wondering if it was supposed to be this hard, begging God to tell me if I was doing the right thing, and realizing that—here too—I was in over my head. If brilliant theologians disagreed about the nature of free-will and God’s sovereignty in salvation, for example, who was I to figure it all out?

So I graduated from seminary in 1996—Magna Cum Laude, and in many ways, mid-renovation.

I didn’t know much about George Barna when he got up to speak at the Re:Write Conference last October. I knew him to be the Christian research guru, and several of his research books lined my shelf. But I didn’t know that—based on his research—he had laid out his own path for Spiritual Growth in his book called Maximum Faith. He describes a Ten-Stop Faith Journey that in many ways parallels Fowler’s work. But I think Barna makes some things even more clear. Here’s what he says.

Stop Number One: We are ignorant to the concept or existence of sin. We all enter the world this way, and according to Barna’s research 1% of American adults remain in this position.

Stop Number Two: We are aware of sin, but indifferent to it. We understand that certain behaviors might be categorized as “sin,” but we are not concerned at all about the consequences. 16% of American adults live here.

Stop Number Three: We are concerned about the implications of personal sin. We begin to ask the “what ifs.” What if there is a hell? What if my sin does offend God? What if the Bible is, in fact, true? Here, we explore possible responses as well. We could ignore sin, reduce sin, hide sin, or seek some way to wipe it out. 39% of American adults exist in Stop Number Three.

Stop Number Four: We confess our sins and ask Jesus Christ to be our personal Savior. After considering our options, we choose the Biblical, Christian path. Unfortunately, 9% of American adults see this as a “one and done” moment and have gone no further on the journey.

Stop Number Five: We commit to faith activities. We read our Bible, memorize verses, join a small group, and pour ourselves into service. This can be an exciting time, a time of rapid growth and change, and 24% of American adults say they are living here.

Stop Number Six: We experience a prolonged period of spiritual discontent. “After years of involvement in the Christian faith, most people slip into a spiritual coma,” says Barna. We are painfully aware that we have plateaued, but we feel helpless to get ourselves unstuck. We become bored or disillusioned with the church. We are susceptible to cynicism, frustration, and doubt. The majority of believers who reach Stop Number Six never move on. The commitment and cost seem too great. So “they retreat to the shelter of the religious games that ensnare most churched people.” This describes 6% of American adults.

Stop Number Seven: We experience personal brokenness. This is when God takes us through a time of “in-your-face confrontation…which prepares [us] for the glorious healing and reconstruction that God has in mind.” This brokenness only comes “after much reflection and meditation, sorrow and remorse, realistic self-evaluation, talking and listening to God, and coming to the end of self…This phase is largely about realigning our spirit with God.” Sadly, only 3% of American adults make it here.

Stop Number Eight: We choose to surrender and submit fully to God and live in radical dependence on Him. We allow God to completely “remake our life,” to heal our past. And we live in the present with a God-consciousness that changes absolutely everything. According to Barna’s extensive study, a mere 1% of American adults have reached Stop Number Eight. The rest of us who have experienced the brokenness of Stop Number Seven have run from it, reverted to previous Stops seeking comfort and ease, become angry with God, or abandoned the faith altogether.

Stop Number Nine: We enjoy a profound intimacy with and love for God. At this Stop, “God blesses us with the ability to know and love Him so profoundly that it is difficult to put into words.” We experience a joy and peace and wisdom that were not available to us before. Just .5% of American adults ever reach this point.

Stop Number Ten: We experience a profound compassion and love for humanity. Finally, loving God as we do, we are able to love people the way He does too. This is the ultimate life, but only .5% of American adults ever experience it.

I sat in Barna’s workshop, staring at my pen and notebook. A bit teary actually. He was articulating so much of what I, too, want to say. What I want this blog to be about.

The importance of healing the past in order to move victoriously into the future.

The role of brokenness in making us whole.

The long, hard, but eternally rewarding journey of Spiritual Growth.

That’s the path before us. That’s the road that each one of us is on—whether we realize it or not. Whether we have stalled by the side of the road, have shifted into reverse, or are slowly making our way forward through a thick fog. I know I’ve traveled in all three ways and then some.

So that’s the developing narrative of This Odd House.

Buckle up. It’s going to be bumpy.

2 thoughts on “To Grow Your Soul

  1. This is beautiful and putting words to my God journey since I started actively being still and hearing from our beloved God every day. He is transforming me inside out and I am brokenhearted and grateful. I am also grateful to read the words of someone processing through a lot of the same. Well done articulating these “steps”. (side note: we are also fostering to adopt, done with our paperwork/training this month!)

  2. I haven’t had a chance to comment on this one. It wasn’t easily digestible, so it took me more than one run at it. It wasn’t for your writing, but for my personal reflection I kept doing along the way. I can relate in so many ways, and I’m thankful you sort of laid out the different perspectives and a little of your journey. It was a “scratch my brain from the inside” process for me as I read it. I was grateful for it. Thanks!

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